What Is Religion’s Place In Science Fiction?
And Why Does God Need A Starship?
Millions of Americans will be braving long lines to see the new Star Wars movie Solo. Millions more will stay home to play Detroit: Beyond Human playing as androids seeking freedom from their human oppressors. Others might choose to watch Westworld to see the violent retribution of androids after years of mistreatment.
Science fiction has recently gained new popularity in mainstream culture.
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But does religion have a place in science fiction? And is the representation favorable? Usually not.
Science fiction is a genre often asking philosophical questions, as what technology will exist in the future. It uses exaggeration to make issues of consciousness, morality, and the ties that bind society. One of the fundamental questions is the role of religion in society.
Several science fiction stories approach this by having characters meet their God. In Alien: Covenant, humans meet the alien species that created life on Earth. 2001: A Space Odyssey implies that human civilization only started with the intervention of an alien race. Most of the time when they meet their makers, they are unimpressed. We are seen in the same way a child would see a pet goldfish, a forgettable pet or as a failed experiment. In Star Trek V, “god” turns out to be a trickster entity trying to infect the galaxy.
When religion is talked about directly in favored science fiction movies, it is ambiguous at best. In the Star Wars movie franchise, the Jedi are a group of warrior-monks that believe in balance, which would be closest to the idea of samurais practicing Taoism or Shaolin Monks. But when spirituality is brought up, it is directly contradicted by “the force” of some microscopic organism in your system. Religion is more a way of creating mystery about the Jedi than an investigation of what would happen when you bring so many different species, and their belief systems, together.
Occasionally humans are given god-like power, and we usually screw it up. Chronicle shows the danger of providing humans superpowers that we are too flawed to use appropriately. Blade Runner shows that once we can achieve godhead by creating another race, we immediately enslave and abuse them. Maybe this is why the Bible decries “sorcerers” and “necromancy.”
Science fiction seems to return to the idea that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” That while religion was necessary for early binding society, as technology and society move forward, religion becomes less and less relevant. This is not an abstract theory. NASA spent over $1 million dollars to study “the societal implications of astrobiology.” Plainly, how religions would deal with the discovery of aliens. While Abrahamic religions would be in an awkward position with the emergence of aliens, eastern philosophies would be in a better place because of their lack of dogmatism in their doctrines.
Oddly, one of the best pop culture depictions of God in science fiction is from the cartoon show Futurama. In an episode titled “Godfellas,” the robot Bender interacts with God who offers a rational and sobering view of what it means to be the supreme being. He can’t help everyone, and the more God intervenes, the more problems it creates. As God tells Bender, “when you do it right, no one will know you have done anything at all.”
Maybe it is because faith in science fiction isn’t always the primary focus. The fantastical creation of hypothetical technology or alien civilizations might have other questions that need answering. Or maybe science fiction writers don’t consider religion as a factor in the future. Now, this is not a universal truth. In an entire genre, there are dozens of stories that deal directly with religion. Ray Bradbury’s The Fire Balloons has Episcopal priests trying to convert sentient balls of light to Christ.
But think of the most famous stories and how they shape our society. What is their message on religion and should we listen?